7.05 Emblem Books

The emblem was an open-ended form, embodying as it did both themes specifically intended by the author and also others that the reader could bring to it from his or her own reading. Collected into books with numerous images, the individual emblems became even more open-ended, since they invited the reader to conceive of study as a series of discrete problems which added up to a moral philosophy, personally acquired and personally applied. Admittedly, the intent was establishmentarian. The individual puzzles almost always led to commonplace solutions that were dictated by obvious social standards. The themes were those of European society at large; and the most significant single lesson intended by most authors was the value of conforming to the commonplaces. Indeed, conformity was an increasingly urgent emblem theme as the Wars of Religion progressed. Still, emblems required an activist kind of reading that engaged the mind in problem solving. The emblem book did not allow of passive learning or rote memorization. It could elicit a variety of responses. The mental activism it demanded particularly appealed to teachers, just as the overall lessons of conformity to authority did. (12)

Because they were pictorial, emblems also assumed some kind of display, both of the complex, invented objects and of the author's learnedness which stood behind the images, mottoes, and poems. There were many everyday opportunities to display emblems, but the emblem book rather quickly became the usual way to transmit emblems to the public. It is easy to see how this kind of public/private, learned/popular, esoteric/on-display object came to symbolize Renaissance ideals of moral education and rhetorical/scientific invention. At their most pretentious, emblem authors imagined that long study and experience were distilled into a single, revelatory moment embodied in the emblem. The emblem would both explicate an author's insight and also stand permanently as witness to the genius of the inventor. In practice very few emblems "invented" in the modern sense of the word. Instead, they discovered morally persuasive themes in the literature of the past -- the classical, rhetorical sense of inventio -- and this was exactly the goal traditionally claimed for a good Latin education. It is in this important sense that emblem collections can be seen as a humanist response to the new realities of education through printed tools. Once collected into series, emblems in book form served for meditation and for teaching, but also for the processes of rhetorical invention and other sorts of design. They were how-to books for inventive thought, whether moral, graphic, or scientific. Because they were puzzles, emblems presupposed a leisurely, Latinate sort of reading and study, not the kinds of simple amusement, quick reference, or stepwise directive that was the method of the usual vernacular how-to book. (13)

The printed emblem book flourished as a high-culture phenomenon until about 1600. Starting in the mid-sixteenth century, however, and continuing throughout the seventeenth, the form was popularized. This developmental arc is important, because the form rather quickly became something its inventor never imagined. Already in the late sixteenth century, emblem-making was diffused into a variety of everyday life situations and popularized. Printing played a key role, both by multiplying the individual emblems and also by proposing the emblem book as tool for extended meditation. The emblem book elevated the activity of composing and puzzling out individual emblems from an occasional pastime to a literary genre with its own rules and conventions, its own critical literature, and a series of audiences defined by the market. Some emblems had always had moral meaning, but, increasingly in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, moral emblems in book form were offered to women and children as tools for learning how to conform to the expectations of society. The process began very early, with several translations of Alciati's 1531 collection intended for student readers that appeared in France in the 1540s. (14)


  • Open Bibliography
  • (12) Harms 1973, 53-57; Pinkus 1996, 39-45; Elkins 1999, 201-203; Scholz 2002, 326-330; Manning 2002, 80-88; Coppens 2005, 37.
  • (13) Gareffi 1981, 12-17; Ciardi 1992, 363-370; Pinkus 1996, 43-45; Waquet 2001, 36-40.
  • (14) On periodization, Harms 1973, 49, 60-62; Scholz 1993, 154-157; Matthews 1991, 30-38; Matthews Grieco1997, 61-65; Manning 2002, 110-114; Wolkenhauer 2002, 46-53, 61-62, 78-83.
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